Appendix II: The Generic he
After completing his enrolment form, the student should proceed to his
tutor’s room where he will be given his library card and induction
Before the 1970s, this sentence would have been unobjectionable to all but a few pioneering feminists. The masculine pronouns he, him and his
were considered acceptable in all cases of unspecified sex. When feminists began to voice their objections, the counter claim came (and still comes)
that he is being used generically, applying to the genus of human beings, not exclusively males. The argument is that if we simply let the masculine
pronouns be common gender, then everyone will know that we really mean ‘he or she’.
But the argument is unconvincing. If he is truly generic, then we would not use she to indicate the exceptional female. In fact, a switch to she
automatically takes place when reference is made to ‘secretaries, nurses, pre-school teachers, baby-sitters and shoppers’,1 and however justified
this switch might be on the grounds that women do, in fact, preponderate in these capacities, it makes unsustainable the very claim of he to be
generic. Far from representing both sexes, he invariably creates the image of a man for all readers, male and female.2 No one pictures a woman.
It must be said at the outset, however, that a satisfactory solution to the problem is not possible as long as the English language lacks a common-
gender, third-person singular pronoun. Many have been suggested (co, E, er, ey, hem, hesh, hir, na, per, shay, sie, ta, tey, zie, zir), but the most
commonly advanced seems to have been thon, a contraction of ‘that one’, coined in 1884 by the American lawyer and hymn writer, Charles Crozat.
But none has caught on. In the circumstances, therefore, the best we can do is to look at the available options to the generic he and make of them
what we can.
Six possibilities exist, and each will be judged by three criteria –
• sex equality
• correct grammar
• simple and effective communication
After completing his or her enrolment form, the student should proceed
to his or her tutor’s room where he or she will be given his or her library
card and induction materials.
This satisfies the criteria of sex equality and correct grammar but can hardly be described as simple and effective communication. Once the double-
gender is chosen, the writer is committed. A single occurrence is tolerable but repetition is not.
After completing her enrolment form, the student should proceed to her
tutor’s room where she will be given her library card and induction
The substitution of feminine for masculine pronouns might be one in the eye for male chauvinists but, unless we are referring to an exclusively
female institution, it offends the equality principle as much as the generic he.
3. Alternating feminine and masculine pronouns
After completing her enrolment form, the student should proceed to his
tutor’s room where she will be given his library card and induction
While the result in a single sentence is clearly nonsense, alternation actually works reasonably well with some scripts. Throughout this website,
for example, the reader is consistently designated he and the writer, she. Alternation, then, can satisfy all three criteria, but its limitations rule it
out as an option in most circumstances.
After completing one’s enrolment form, one should proceed to one’s
tutor’s room where one will be given one’s library card and induction
Apart from sounding pretentious, this sentence is missing the important noun, student. The curious thing about one is that, unlike his and her, it
cannot appear with the noun it represents. We cannot, for example, say, After completing one’s enrolment form, the student should proceed to
one’s tutor’s room… With no noun allowed, this option fails to satisfy our third criterion of simple and effective communication.
After completing their enrolment form, the student should proceed to
their tutor’s room where they will be given their library card and
This is one of the most common ways of avoiding sex bias (The caller withheld their number), but it is ungrammatical; their is a plural pronoun. A
case is often made for its use in the singular on the very grounds of avoiding sex bias, but it remains controversial.
(See their, them, themselves)
6. Full pluralisation
After completing their enrolment forms, students should proceed to their
tutors’ rooms where they will be given their library cards and induction
This seems to satisfy all three criteria. The sentence is gender free, grammatically sound and reasonably clear in meaning (although, to be
pedantic, it is not made clear that each student is to receive only one library card). But our example is a simple instruction. We would expect to
find it in a student prospectus, but certainly not at a dramatic point in narrative.
With narrative, in fact, there is often no satisfactory option to the villain of the piece –
No one in his right mind would go in there if he knew what awaited him.
The writer has possibly devoted pages to creating a mood of foreboding. If any change is made to this sentence, the spell is broken.
There is usually a way of avoiding sex bias in most circumstances: double gender pronouns, provided we can steer clear of the slippery slope;
alternation, in circumstances where there are two, and only two, capacities, such as writer and reader or teacher and learner; pluralisation of the
singular, provided we are prepared to overlook the breach of grammar (as we usually are with expressions such as It’s him and Who did you want
to speak to?); and full pluralisation when we are addressing many people impersonally. But none is perfect, and unless or until it adopts a truly
gender-free pronoun, the English language will continue to discriminate against half the people who speak it.